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Walking into history

A?historic mill and the gangster days of St. Paul were on the itinerary for a recent Senior College trip

April 28, 2012
By Cindy Votruba , Marshall Independent

It's not every day that a tour guide brings an actual Tommy gun on a bus.

But when you're portraying a gun "moll" for a group of students learning about the gangsters in St. Paul, the Tommy gun was an effective touch.

Recently, 52 members of the Senior College traveled to the Twin Cities as part of a daytrip that took them to the Wabasha Street Caves and the Mill City Museum. Mary Ellen Mattson of Balaton helped organize the trip.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Sue Selden

Charles Timm, along with other members of Senior College, pose with a tour guide who portrayed Edna “The Kissing Bandit”?Murray during a daytrip Senior College took to the Twin Cities. Stops included the Wabasha Street Caves, below left and the Mill City.

"I like to do this type of thing," Mattson said. "If I'm going to plan it, it's going to be history."

Past excursions Senior College students have been on include the GAR Museum in Litchfield and the stockade in Forest City and to Gary, S.D., Mattson said.

"We always get a pretty good crowd going on the day trip," Mattson said.

Mattson said Senior College director Betty Roers had gone to the Mill City Museum, which is built into the ruins of what was once the world's largest flour mill, and recommended that the group try it as part of the daytrip.

The Mill City Museum was once the Washburn A Mill that was built in 1874, and it had elevators that took the Senior College students up and down the flour milling museum and an observation deck that looked out over St. Anthony Falls. There were a couple of theaters that showed movies of the milling industry, Mattson said.

"We spent a couple of hours at that place," Mattson said.

Herb Pagel of Minneota grew up in St. Paul, so the trip was especially interesting for him. Back in the "Roaring '20s," he said, the Lehman Company used the caves to grow mushrooms. These "caves" were actually mines back in the 1800s, and were dug for sand to make glass, Pagel said.

"We learned about the history of the caves," Pagel said. During the 1920s, Lehmans took one of those caves and built a fancy speakeasy, he said.

If the gangsters who went to the speakeasies back in the 1920s reported in, they were promised protection by the St. Paul police, Pagel said.

When he lived in St. Paul, Pagel knew the gangsters had their heyday there.

"But I did not know particular places," Pagel said. Pagel grew up in St. Paul's west side and during the Senior College excursion, he learned that the Barker Gang had holed up in one of the houses in that area. The then police chief had tipped off the Barker gang before the house was raided, Pagel said.

Pagel also learned that Summit Avenue in St. Paul is on the National Historical Registry.

"All those Victorian mansions," he said. "I had been in some of these mansions."

Mattson said the favorite part of the recent daytrip for her was the guide for the gangster tour. The guide portrayed Edna "The Kissing Bandit" Murray.

"She had so much humor in her," Mattson said. "Our tour guide was just excellent."

"She comes on the bus with a Tommy gun, an actual Tommy gun," Pagel said. But parts had been taken out, so the gun didn't work, Pagel said.

And living up to her character's name, the tour guide also planted a few kisses on the men who went on the trip. Ardis Alexander of Vesta, along with her husband, Gordon, had front seats next to the guide and she said the guide gave him a hard time for about half an hour.

"(And) there were numerous bald-headed men who got kissed on the head," Alexander said.

The gangster tour was the main reason Gerry Gingles of Canby came on the trip.

"That's why I went," he said. "I think the gangster tour was the highlight."

Gingles said he learned how the Rice Park area was once the red-light district in St. Paul.

"I didn't know St. Paul was as crooked as it was," Gingles said. Alexander said she wasn't aware of the "under-the-table" activities the gangsters had with the St. Paul Police.

Gingles said the tour also went to a couple of places where kidnappings and gangster activity took place.

Senior College students said that besides having fun, they get an education as well.

"I enjoyed the caves a lot," Alexander said.

"It's always a good time and we learn a lot," Pagel said.



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